x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Early duels in French football's dark days shaped Arsenal manager Wenger

The Velodrome, home of Marseille, is so full of ghosts that, even after 17 years without a competitive fixture there, Arsene Wenger will still be haunted by the club.

Arsenal players during a training session.
Arsenal players during a training session.

Arsene Wenger finds himself back in the tunnel at the Velodrome, a little spooked. It has been a long while since he last walked through there to take his place on the coaching bench, the vivid crescendo of noise from the upper tiers of the grandstands growing louder in his left ear as he nears the pitch, the anticipation of bright flares and fireworks in his mind's eye.

Olympique Marseille, whom Wenger's Arsenal meet in the Champions League, is an intense place for any visitor. For this French manager, it is so full of ghosts that, even after 17 years without a competitive fixture at the Velodrome, there must be moments when the ghouls haunt him.

He might even recall the excitable taunts uttered at him one tense evening in that tunnel by the then president of Marseille, Bernard Tapie, after Wenger's Monaco had lost an ill-tempered, dirty match. Tapie swore at a vexed Wenger, bellowing: "I've done you over, you and your little Monaco!"

For most of the seven seasons - 1987 to 1994 - Wenger was in charge of Monaco, he duelled with Marseille for the bigger French prizes. Monaco took the Ligue 1 title in 1988; when OM followed up with four successive championnats, Monaco were twice runners-up and twice finished third; three Cup finals were contested between Wenger's Monaco and the lavishly-recruited OM, Monaco winning two of them.

Thus was Wenger's initiation into top-of-the-table, high-pressure club management. The rivalry with OM would fortify him for feisty rivalries to come with Arsenal: against Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United; against Chelsea; against clubs more aggressive in the transfer market than his own; against the periods of frustration within Arsenal, of which the current spell of inconsistency and uncertainty may be the hardest yet.

But the ogre that was Marseille would shape Wenger more profoundly than any of those battles. As he would reflect some years later, he was duelling with OM during "the worst period in French football history."

Fuller details of that history have come to light since Wenger last worked in France. He would leave Monaco during the season after the biggest scandal broke. Prosecutors, armed with evidence of footballers from Valenciennes and OM testified, had found that at least one match involving Marseille in 1992/93 had been fixed at the behest of senior OM officials.

OM would be stripped of their 1993 French title as a result and relegated. Tapie would go to prison. An OM player of the time, Jean-Jacques Eydelie, would later publish a memoir detailing not only match-fixing but alleging doping at Marseille.

Wenger's Monaco felt like victims of dubious practice. Their former midfielder Emmanuel Petit, later to join up again with Wenger as Arsenal, recalls: "Two days after we had lost a match 3-0 at home to OM, Wenger called me into his office and told me to shut the door. He showed on video the goals from the game and asked me what I thought. He then told me he suspected, in fact felt quite sure, that some Monaco players had been bought by OM."

Petit describes an atmosphere of secrecy and intimidation.

"When I was 19 and among a lot of Marseille players in the national squad, I made the mistake of saying in an interview that 'for one team winning the championship involves running 80m and for the others it means running 100m'. It was made clear to me after that I should keep my mouth shut."

As Wenger would later recall: "There was nothing worse than knowing the odds were stacked against us."

The posture of a wronged Wenger, a victimised Arsenal, is one that crops up through his storied era in London: You hear it in his complaints about refereeing, about the irresponsible spending of rivals, about the brutal tactics of other Premier League teams. He does not suggest corruption, but the experience of having tackled an immoral OM in the 1980s and 1990s has given him the tools to perfect a role as defender of honour, the Good Guy in the movie.

Today's Marseille, with the club having served their punishment in Ligue 2 - and with a 18-year gap in their annals between their last championnat, 1992, and the most recent - are not the swaggering bullies of Wenger's last trip there as a coach.

For the first time, he will lead an economically-stronger club, a more talented squad into a match at the Velodrome. But, just like the old Monaco days, he still finds himself looking up the table at OM, who despite poor domestic form, stand top of their Champions League group. Arsenal lag two points behind.

sports@thenational.ae

10.45pm, Aljazeera Sport